Lightnin’ Hopkins embodied the blues. His singing, guitar playing, his physical appearance, personality, and demeanor, were the blues. One of the most recognizable bluesmen to come out of Texas, Lightnin’ Hopkins went on to stake out an enduring and productive career with his own spontaneous and eclectic style of haunting vocals and accompanying guitar.
Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins was born in Centerville, Texas, on March 15, 1912. After his father died in 1915, the family (Sam, his mother and five brothers and sisters) moved to Leona. At age eight he made his first instrument, a cigar-box guitar with chicken-wire strings. By ten he was playing music with his cousin, Texas Alexander, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, who encouraged him to continue. Hopkins also played with his brothers, blues musicians John Henry and Joel.
By the mid-1920s Sam had started jumping trains, shooting dice, and playing the blues anywhere he could. He married sometime in the 1920s, and had several children, but by the mid-1930s his wife, frustrated by his wandering lifestyle, took the children and left Hopkins. He served time at the Houston County Prison Farm in the mid-1930s, and after his release he returned to the blues-club circuit. In 1946 he had his big break and first recording�in Los Angeles for Aladdin Recordings. On the record was a piano player named Wilson (Thunder) Smith; by chance he combined well with Sam to give him his nickname, Lightnin’. The album has been described as “downbeat solo blues” characteristic of Hopkins’s style. Aladdin was so impressed with Hopkins that the company invited him back for a second session in 1947. He eventually made forty-three recordings for the label, which are highly regarded and available as “The Complete Aladdin Recordings.”